I should have never responded to the small mysterious advertisement I found in the back of that crossword magazine. You see, I’m what you call a puzzler. Crosswords, sudoku, cryptoquips--these are my indulgences. We’re a small community, us puzzlers, but dedicated. You may be familiar with my personal hero, Will Shortz, the editor for the New York Times crossword and NPR’s resident puzzle master. It may be a bit of a dull hobby to some, but for vehement puzzlers such as myself, a real challenge just cannot be ignored. That’s why, when flipping through the last few pages of an old crossword book that I had solved months prior, I could not resist calling the number at the bottom of this curious ad:
The Puzzlers’ Box
Puzzle masters are dying to solve it,
yet not one has cracked the case.
Do you have what it takes to survive
the ultimate enigma?
The greatest challenge of your life awaits.
When the call went through, an automated system answered and asked only for my name. No address, no callback number. Needless to say I was skeptical. But that very night around three in the morning I was awoken by a phone call that jarred me from my sleep. I answered with an irritated “hello” only to be greeted by the same robotic voice from before.
“Your puzzle will begin in three days time” the voice said, then the call ended.
I wiped my bleary eyes and sat up in bed, pulling up my call history. It was the same number I had dialed, so I looked the area code. Indianapolis, Indiana. Eastern Standard Time, same as me. So why on Earth would they have scheduled the call at such a god-forsaken hour?
The next night, I received another call. This time, at two in the morning.
“Your puzzle will begin in two days time” the robot said, and the call ended.
Now I was growing frustrated. I could forgive them for calling me the first night, even if it was a massively inconvenient time, but what need was there to call me every night and remind me of the damned thing? I was starting to wonder if this Puzzlers’ Box was some type of scam.
The following night, at one in the morning, that monotonous bastard voice droned, “Your puzzle will begin in tomorrow.”
“Thank you for the fucking update” I cursed and slammed my phone back down on the nightstand.
The following morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I receive the Puzzlers’ Box in the mail? I hadn’t provided any shipping address. Was this something that would be conducted over the phone in the middle of the night? I went through my usual workday with a grim sort of anxiety, uncertain of what I was expecting. The whole experience so far had left a sour taste in my mouth and I almost wanted it all to fall through in the end.
I received no packages on my desk at work. There was nothing in the mailbox when I returned home that evening. I sat through dinner, chewing my baked chicken breast with an uneasy tension. I showered, wasted a few hours in front of the TV, brushed my teeth, and went to bed just after ten. No mail, no phone calls, no puzzle had arrived.
I awoke to a shrill siren in my ear and when I sat up, I bashed my head into something solid just a few inches above me. I was surrounded in darkness on all sides and could hardly move my limbs. I was still in my pajamas, but I was clearly not in my bed. I lie atop something hard and flat. I flailed my arms. My knuckles beat against solid, dry wood. I began to panic, completely blind in that darkness. My hands snaked up and down my torso, hoping that by some chance I had my cell phone around me. My fingertips skimmed over a small plastic tube and I clenched it against my palm, desperately trying to feel out its dimensions. It was about two or three inches long with a metal cap and ridges. A lighter. It had to be. My hands were trembling so feverishly that it took me half a dozen tries to spark the flint.
The orange flame illuminated my sarcophagus. I was in a coffin. Dear god, I was in a coffin. I held the lighter in one hand and pushed the other against the lid, pushing with the help of my knees to free myself. But the lid would not budge. Surely the coffin hadn’t been nailed shut. Surely I wasn’t underground. Why, god, would I awaken in a coffin?
The ceiling of the coffin was crisscrossed with long, shallow scratches. The wood was splintered by gouges and hairline, spider-webbing cracks. Dried brown splatters of blood were smeared across the wood and the sight of it caused me to drop the lighter. Complete blackness enveloped me again. I began to softly sob. Yes, I am a full grown man, just be glad I didn’t shit myself.
After a few minutes of helpless weeping, I began to shout. I beat my palms against the wood. I screamed for help until my throat felt like it were ready to tear apart and my lungs burned. Then, I was reduced to cursing, barraging both myself and the world with the most ferocious string of profanity I had ever put together. This anger tapered off, though, as the realization crept upon me that the air in the coffin was stale and hot, that it was a finite resource, that all my yelling and hissing had used up a stupid amount of it. Oxygen, precious oxygen. Something that I had taken for granted, my very breath, so easy to come by in the world outside of this cursed box.
This cursed box. The Puzzlers’ Box, I remembered. Surely, this was the result of the damned advertisement I had called. A glimmer of hope dawned within me: perhaps there was a solution. All puzzles have solutions!
I found the lighter beside me and sparked the flame once more. My neck craned side to side in search of clues. I spotted a small block of text carved into the wood in the very corner of the board behind my head. I bent my legs and scrunched myself down towards the foot of the coffin so that I could twist my head around and read the tiny lettering.
Good evening and welcome to the Puzzlers’ Box.
Rest assured that there is escape, but beware
light is fueled by fire, fire fueled by air.
Arrange the tiles below you to open all the locks.
You have limited time to solve it, a couple hours at least.
Solve the riddle, crack the code, that’s all you have to do!
But I won’t waste anymore of your time, here’s your only clue:
You share this with your brother, and pay it to the priest.
I let off the lighter immediately because I could feel the very air around me being sucked in and obliterated in that tiny flame. I kicked and groaned and smashed my fists into the wooden walls around me. What kind of fucked up sadistic son of a bitch put me here? What could anyone possibly gain from burying strangers alive? I flicked on the lighter once more and examined the desperate scratches in the ceiling of the coffin. It was proof that I was not the first victim. It was proof that others had died right here where I lay. I spotted something lodged into the wood grain and reached up to pluck it out. A fingernail. I shut off the lighter and had to brace myself to keep from vomiting.
It took a lot of work to maneuver in the tight confines of the coffin, jamming my shoulders into the corners and squeezing my knees up against my hips while I rolled onto my stomach. The tiles that would unlock this death box were below me, according to the riddle. I cannot describe for you the physical strain involved in lifting my body up off of the floor of the coffin to survey what lay beneath me. It was a grid of one-inch-by-one-inch wooden tiles that could be shifted around in their frame and rearranged, like a sliding puzzle. Except it did not appear to me that these tiles would form any kind of picture. Each tile had series of small dots dremeled onto their face. But what on Earth could they be?
I let out a pent-up sigh, then instantly cursed myself for breathing so freely. I needed to conserve oxygen. Every breath I took and every second of illumination that filled the coffin was converting my precious supply of oxygen into carbon dioxide. On the floor, just above the tile puzzle, I noticed another small string of words carved into the wood. “Which do you fear more? Darkness or death?”
I turned off the lighter and lay on my stomach for several minutes, thinking in the dark. Sliding puzzle with dotted tiles. It had to be a cryptic language. Most likely, Morse code. Perhaps braille or binary. Unfortunately, I was only familiar with the first option.
My brain was racking itself over the clue. What do you share with your brother? A family. Blood. DNA. A house. Parents. It could be any number of things! And all I could think of to pay a priest was tithing. Maybe you’ve already solved the riddle while reading this, but try it when you’re crammed into a tiny wooden box. The walls felt like they were constricting tighter around me. My lungs burned from the dusty, still air, as if I was breathing in the very darkness itself. Tendrils of claustrophobia were pulling taut around my throat. The silence was clogging my ears. I could hear my own blood coursing through my veins.
Parents, blood lines, tithes.
I could feel the Earth swallowing me down deeper.
Mom, dad, prayers, Jesus Christ.
How many minutes had wasted away?
Church. Houses. Worship. Death.
I won’t survive.
I clenched my eyelids tight. I tried to remember the few years I had spent in Catholic school as a child. Tried to recall the drab recitations of Latin, the taste of communion wine on my tongue. The dark, wooden box I was trapped in called forth a memory of the confession booth.
“What confessions do you bring to me today, my son?” Father Burroughs asked from the shadows on the other side of the partition.
“I’ve stolen, father,” my eleven-year-old self said meekly. “Candies, from the convenience store on Auburn Street.”
“Three Hail Mary’s, my son,” Father Burroughs spoke. “And five Our Fathers.”
Our Fathers. Of course. I jolted with excitement, smacking the back of my head on the coffin lid. What you share with your brother, what you pay to the priest. Our Father. My absolution. My salvation. It lay just below me. I felt the wooden tiles pressed against my ribs. Struggling, I lifted myself back up onto my elbows and stared down at the tiles below me, trying to decipher what I could from the shallow dots drilled into the tiles. Many of the tiles were flecked in droplets of murky red where others had attempted to solve the Puzzlers’ Box with torn and bleeding fingers.
My hands were shaking as I frantically rearranged the tiles, praying that the answer would be in Morse Code. The tiles were dusty and old, their corners often catching against one another so that they were difficult to slide into place. I did this in short bursts of firelight, knowing that every second the flame shined another breath was stolen from my lungs. Often the metal guard of the lighter grew so hot that it burned my thumb and I dropped it, having to claw around for it in the dark. The going was slow and I could feel the poisonous carbon gas growing more potent, more deadly by the second. I can’t say how long it took, this pattern of lighting the flame, moving a few tiles, then gulping down thirsty breaths in the dark.
I slid the last tiles into place, spelling out the old prayer in its entirety. A metallic click sounded on one side of the box. Once the coffin lid was unlocked, I was able to pry it aside just enough to force myself sideways through the gap. Black mud collapsed down into the earth around me as I clawed my way towards freedom. Dirt and bugs gathered in my mouth while I fought against the tide of shifting soil. I burst forth from the ground just as the sun was rising. That dawn I will never forget. I survived the Puzzlers’ Box.
Fellow puzzle-junkies, if you spot an ad in the back of a magazine promising the greatest challenge of your life; if you are tempted by the mysterious brevity of its text, I implore you do not, under any circumstances, call about the Puzzlers’ Box.